12 Sep

Mind Mapping

Posted in Brain Boot Camp, DIY MFA

This is a technique I learned when I was taking a creativity seminar in grad school.  Mind mapping is great for visual thinkers who need to “see” the big picture of a project.  It’s also really good to use in a brainstorming session because it forces you to look at your idea from different angles, literally.  Not sure what I mean, just try making a mind map.  You’ll turn the page around so many times, it’s almost impossible not to look at the idea from different perspectives.

There are as many different ways of making a mind map as there are creative people in the world, but the basics are the same.  Write the main idea in the center of the page and circle it.  Now make branches from the circle and write one topic on each of those lines.  Continue breaking off subtopics from each of those branches, creating what looks like a web across the page.  Like this:

For example, say you wanted to use a mind map to brainstorm the world of your story, you might start with the name of your story as the center. Then your branches might be: Technology, Food, Geography, Clothing, etc.  For each of those branches then you would break down the subtopics into more detail.  This example revolved around world building but you can use mind mapping to brainstorm just about any aspect of your story.

Some tips for making an effective mind map:

  • Use markers or colored pens to color-code.
  • Try not to judge your ideas as you draw the map.
  • Don’t be afraid to make it messy.
  • Turn the page around and look at the idea from different angles.
  • If possible, use unlined paper, to allow your ideas to flow in all directions.

I’ll close this with a personal tidbit.  When I was in grad school for psychology, I used to take all my notes this way.  Of course, it made things difficult when a fellow student asked to borrow my notes.  They’d take one look and hand my notebook right back.  Eventually I’ve found a balance between taking notes in mind maps and using a more standard format but I still think mind maps are more fun!

Today’s Task:  Mind map something.  Doesn’t matter what it is.  It can be your grocery list, if that’s what’s on your mind right this minute.

In terms of discussion, I’d love to know: did the mind map help you gain insights on your topic that you might not have gained with a traditional outline?  Did it help you see your topic from a new perspective?


11 Sep

Morphological Forced Connetions

Posted in Brain Boot Camp, DIY MFA

Today’s subject is one of my favorite ways to come up with wacky new writing ideas.  Morphological Forced Connections uses a matrix (or chart) to generate ideas by combining different components at random.  This is a great way to generate random writing prompts when you’re stuck.
What you need:
–Paper and writing implement

Here’s how it works:

1)  Make a list of categories relating to what you’re going to write.  Some suggestions: genre, story structure, POV, setting, form, protagonist, antagonist, prop, or anything else that comes to mind.

2)  Under each category brainstorm 6 options.  Like this:

Genre                Plot/Story Premise              POV                    Form
Romance           Fish Out of Water                  1st                       poem
Fantasy             Underdog                               2nd                      essay
SciFi                  Pygmalion                              3rd                       story
Thriller              Quest                                      Omniscient          flash fiction
Chick Lit           Star-Crossed Lovers            Peripheral            novella in verse
Picture Book     Revenge                                 Objective             email/twitter

3)  For each category roll the dice and circle or highlight the choice from each list accordingly.  The prompt for the example above is: Fantasy story about star-crossed lovers, told in 1st person through the email/twitter format.

4)  Now write.

Note: Sometimes it seems like the combination you got isn’t actually going to work.  “What do you mean I’m supposed to write a thriller quest story as an omniscient poem?”  The idea here isn’t to come up with the premise for the next great American novel.  Rather, the goal is to shake up your thinking and make you see connections you ordinarily wouldn’t see.

Today’s Task:  Come up with your own morphological forced connection prompt.  If you like, share your prompt in the comments or borrow a prompt from a fellow DIY MFAer.


05 Sep

Who You Gonna Call?

Posted in Brain Boot Camp, DIY MFA

Blockbusting is nothing more than a matter of developing strategies and putting them into action.  Of course, before we can come up with any strategies to break through blocks, we must identify the blocks themselves.  Identifying the offending specimens is the first and most important step.

There is a fabulous book on busting through blocks: Conceptual Blockbusting by James L. Adams.  Although this book is mostly geared toward corporate creatives, a lot of the information is relevant to any kind of artist, including writers.  Today I’ll highlight a few of the blocks that are most relevant to writers and discuss how we can break through them.

Fear of Taking Risks:  Many writers like to write “safe.”  I’ve seen a lot of this in writing classes and academic environments, where writers produce work that they’re lukewarm about but that will get a “safe” response.  I’ll admit, I was a risk-averse offender from time to time and I almost took the easy way out when I was getting ready to write my thesis.  Then I thought, what the heck?  I’ll write what I like and so what if it’s terrible.  This meant resurrecting a novel that I thought had gone to it’s final resting place.  In the end, that piece turned out to be one of the best things I’ve written to date.  Try this: If you feel your writing stagnating, ask yourself what risks you can take.  Add a character.  Kill a character.  Change POV.  Change the hero into a villain or the villain into a hero.

“First you jump off the cliff and you build wings on the way down.”
Ray Bradbury

No Appetite for Chaos:  Similarly to being risk-averse, many writers are afraid of chaos.  You live and die by your outline.   You have to edit as soon as you get your critique papers because heaven forbid your draft remain “rough.”  But chaos sometimes goes beyond the surface of the writing.  For instance, I have a hard time writing anything that deals with tough emotions because I like to keep my writing life neat and clean and free of messy feelings.  Of course, the minute I allow myself to delve into my characters’ emotions is when I finally make progress.  Try this: Is there an area of your life where you impose orderliness?  Can you give yourself permission to make a mess?  Let yourself play and see what happens.

“No one welcomes chaos, but why crave stability and predictability?
Hugh Mackay

Inability to Incubate:  Another problem that many writers run into is failure to incubate an idea.  Not all ideas or projects are conceived ready for the page.  Sometimes an idea needs to simmer for a while and if a writer tries to force it into being, the idea ill balk and exact its revenge.  Sometimes we have to give our ideas room to breathe and grow.  Try this: Is there an idea that you’ve been forcing into action?  If so, let it incubate for a while.  If you feel nervous about letting the idea sit, do some productive procrastination and do some research or character sketches for your story.

“He that can have patience can have what he will.”
Benjamin Franklin 

Lack of Flexible Thinking:  Sometimes writers get locked into a perspective of their story and they bypass a series of much better options.  For instance, when I first started working on my current WIP, I had the view of the antagonist as being a prototypical “mean girl” at school.  My protagonist would have to juggle conflicts at home with her desire to fit into the school world dominated by said mean girl.  I was so stuck on this idea that even though I kept hitting the wall, I still saw this antagonist in this stereotypical way.  Then my adviser suggested I bring the antagonist into the protagonist’s world instead of vice versa.  The result was a pile of pages written in the antagonist’s POV (which were cut from the current draft but were still invaluable in developing the current story.)  Try this: If you’re finding yourself stuck in a certain mindset, ask yourself: what’s the most drastic change you can make?  Now make it.

“Si quelqu’un veut un mouton, c’est la preuve qu’il en existe un.”
(If somebody wants a sheep, that is a proof that one exists.)
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Conceptual Blockbusting contains many more blocks with exercises to test your thinking and detailed explanations of how to turn these blocks on their heads.  In the end, it all comes down to one thing: if you keep moving, maybe these blocks won’t catch you.

“Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.”
 Henry David Thoreau


04 Sep

Five Stages of Writer’s Block

Posted in Brain Boot Camp, DIY MFA

When writers aren’t writing, they hurt.  They may not realize that they miss writing, but their behavior speaks volumes.  Often, writers will go through a series of stages of writer’s block before they reach the other side ready to write again.

(1) Denial: 
“I don’t have writer’s block, I’m just really, really busy.  So busy in fact, that I just can’t seem to find time to do all that writing that I know I should do.  But just you watch: as soon as I’m not so busy, I’ll be writing up a storm.”

There’s a reason why denial is the first stage of writer’s block.  If you’re going to get a writing impasse, you first have to identify that it’s there.  The sooner you realize you have writer’s block, the sooner you can get over it and start writing again.

(2) Anger:  “Why can’t I think of any good ideas?  Clearly there is someone at fault here because I’m supposed to be writing the greatest story/novel/poem EVER, but instead I’m here busy with this job/family/life that is taking all my time.  It’s so horribly unfair.”

Anger is often a defense mechanism writers use to avoid writing.  It’s easy to get angry at the world around us for not letting us write, but the truth is, if we want to write, we find the time.  Getting angry is just a way for writers to mask the truth: that they’re not writing.  The cure is simple.  Just start writing.  Heck, write right AT the people or things that make you angry.  Before you know it, the anger will be gone and you’ll be writing.

(3) Bargaining:  “OK, I’ve got it all figured out.  If I don’t write today, but I write doubly much tomorrow, it will even out, right?  And if I don’t write tomorrow, then I’ll just write a triple dose the day after.  Easy-peasy.

Bargaining is a fancy technique but really what it boils down to is denial.  When you start making rationalizations about why you’re not writing or why you can’t write right now, you’re simply denying the fact that you need to write.  The truth is, paralysis breeds more paralysis and the more excuses you make for not writing, the harder it becomes to start writing again.  Don’t let the cycle pick up momentum.  Instead, nip this sucker in the bud.  No rationalizations.  Just sit down and write.

(4)  Depression:  “What’s the point?  Everything I write is lousy so why bother?  I only had one good story/novel/poem in me anyway and I’ve already used it up.  I’ll never write again.”

This is probably the darkest stage of writer’s block because it is at this point that the writer begins to doubt his or her actual ability.  Up until now, the focus of the writer’s inability to write has been external, but now the focus becomes internal.  Freud said depression was anger directed toward the self, and I think there is some truth to that.  The depression phase of writer’s block happens when writers let their frustrations with a certain project become personal.  I was once given a fantastic piece of advice which I’ll share with you now:

“Don’t say ‘I failed,’ say ‘this failed’ and then move on.”

(5)  Acceptance:  “Maybe I have writer’s block and maybe it’s awful and there’s nothing I can do about it.  But that’s OK.  I can still sit down and write through it.”

The reason writer’s block is so painful is because writers really do hurt when they’re not writing (whether they’re cognizant of it or not).  Writers need to write the way most other people need to breathe and when they are not writing, writers grieve.  They mope.  They wallow.

Oftentimes, all it takes is one small step, one tiny push in the right direction to get a writer back on track.  I’ve found that for me, the best cure is acknowledging and then moving on.  Sometimes the trickiest part of writer’s block is actually identifying that we’re hurting.  Once we identify the pain behind the writer’s block, it’s just a matter of finding the cure.  After all, if writer’s block is nothing more than pain from not writing, then the easiest way to get rid of it is to… write!

Today’s Task:  Today’s task is a choose-your-own-adventure.  If you are currently experiencing writer’s block, go to choice A.  If you are not currently having writer’s block, choose B.

(A)  If you chose this task, it’s because you’re currently experiencing writer’s block.  Good for you for being aware and identifying the problem.  Now as best you can, try to identify which stage of writer’s block you’re at right now.  Remember, recognizing the problem is half the battle.  As we mentioned previously, writer’s block is often recycled pain from not writing, so our task for today is gently coax yourself into writing a list.  This list should contain baby steps you can take to break out of the clutches of whatever writer’s block stage you’re in.  Your tactics will be different depending on the stage, but whatever steps you choose, this task should end with you writing (even if it’s just this list).

(B)  You lucky writer, you.  If you chose this task it’s because you don’t have writer’s block right now.  You may want to refrain from sharing that fact with the rest of us, lest we get jealous. 🙂  Seriously, though, while you may not have writer’s block right now, I’d be willing to be that you’ve had it in the past and that you will experience it again someday.  That said, choose the stage where you often find yourself “getting stuck.”  Now make a list in your notebook of things you can do to prevent yourself from falling into that stage’s trap.  This list might contain activities that help jump-start your creativity.  It could also include writing prompts you can use to shake up your ideas.  Depending on what stage you choose, your list could be dramatically different.  (If you like, you could make a list for each of the stages.)  The goal here is to make a preemptive strike against writer’s block and be ready for when it rears it’s ugly head.


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